Mr. Gaiman is having a very good year. In the UK, a new adaptation of his radio play Neverwhere kicked off in March to rave reviews on BBC Radio 4. He wrote his second episode of the long-running sci-fi institution Doctor Who, which aired in May, also to high acclaim. He is writing scripts for an HBO adaptation to his masterpiece novel American Gods, reportedly planned for six seasons with a respectable budget of $40 million per season. He has written his first video game, a gothic, cartoony mystery called Wayward Manor, due out in the fall. And 2013 saw three book releases for Neil: two children’s books, Chu’s Day and Fortunately, the Milk (forthcoming), as well as his first novel in eight years, The Ocean at the End of the Lane – centerpiece of a massive summer tour.
The tour for Ocean is particularly significant because it’s the last major U.S. tour Neil Gaiman plans to do. Ever. There are reasons for this, as I would soon learn for myself. But with that in mind, I really had no choice – if I ever wanted to meet the guy, this was probably my chance. So, I pre-ordered two tickets for the event in Saratoga Springs, orchestrated by Northshire Books in anticipation of their new store opening, and I planned a long Adirondack weekend for my lady and I. A book event, some camping, some beer stops, and a visit to my cousin in nearby Albany – it all seemed to fit together easily. I tuned the car up and made sure our tent had no holes in it. I ordered a couple of books online to get signed (first edition of Smoke & Mirrors, and a copy of American Gods for a friend in South Korea). All systems go!
Saratoga Springs is a tiny town with some cool (but higher-end) stores. There’s a spice and hot sauce shop, a bookstore with a lovely collection of fine books (teasingly out of my price range), fashionable boutiques, a store that sells nothing but olive oils and balsamic vinegars (all of which you can taste for free) – you get the idea. We meandered a bit, had a decent Asian lunch at Phila Fusion, then went to the Gaiman event at the new City Center, which I liked right away for its large free and centrally located parking lot.
Much waiting and carousing with fans. Much shifting of butts in seats. And then Neil came on stage and he was funny and endearing and relaxed and a joy to listen to. He read from the new book and answered some questions. It was a good interview, conducted by Joe Donahue for WAMC Northeast Public Radio. You can hear the audio of the interview here.
Then Neil Gaiman left the stage, applause resounding throughout the monstrous room, spirits high, smiles all around. And next, unbeknownst and unexpected, and through no fault of Mr. Gaiman, a tedious crucible began.
It was time for the book signing portion of the evening. Now, there were 1500 people at this thing. And nearly all of them were eager to meet Neil and get a book signed. How do you organize 1500 fans? Well, the coordinators decided to use a random letter system – everyone was assigned a letter with their copy of the book, and the groups would take turns alphabetically. All the A group, then all the B, etc. We were group F, and I think it only went up to G. I knew these sorts of events could go well past midnight, so it seemed that we had some time on our hands before we’d get to meet Neil. After watching the process for a while to get a sense of how fast things were moving, we decided to go get some Chinese food and come back, figuring we’d get back well before they called the F’s. Well. That apparently was a huge mistake. While we were gone, the coordinators had decided to completely abandon the alphabet system and make it a free-for-all instead. Everyone in the place had made a mad dash to get in line, and by the time we returned, we found ourselves at the very end of that line. This line now stretched all the way around the auditorium, down the hall, and then snaked through another conference room. It became clear that the rest of our night was now spoken for.
I don’t want to seem bitter, and I know orchestrating this event must have been challenging. Overall, Northshire did a fantastic job. But boy were we steamed at the time. We could have been out of there in a couple of hours if they hadn’t changed the line system. Instead, it was a little after midnight by the time we actually made it to the signing table. The reading had been at 6:00, and I had been saving our seats since 4:30. So all told, I spent about eight hours in that event hall, four of it standing in line. Not awesome.
But after all of these annoyances and all of that waiting, I finally did get to meet Neil Gaiman. He signed my books and we had the briefest but nicest chat. I thanked him for sharing his wonderful brain with the world and for being committed enough to his fans to endure this absurd marathon of publicity. And he smiled a goofy, worn-out smile and thanked me for the same. There were so many questions I would have asked this prolific and multi-talented writer, but I wasn’t sure he’d be up for it, and I was a zombie myself by that point. I said take care and have a good tour, and he said “You too. Take care I mean. Not the tour part…” And we both sort of chuckled in exhaustion and that was that.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. I have nothing but admiration for this guy, as an artist and now as a human being. He is known to endure long nights on tour, refusing to leave if even one person is still in line, and I’ve now seen the cost of that dedication. And that’s why I understand the reason this is his last one. However exhausting it was for me, I know it was a thousand times more for him. Connecting with your readers is an important thing – Gaiman has over 1.8 million twitter followers, for good reason. He gets it, and we know he gets it, and we love him for it. But when it stops being fun and starts being a test of physical and mental endurance, I can understand backing off a bit. Besides, I’d really rather he stayed home to write more and more awesome things. I’m just selfish that way.
So how is the new book, anyway? It’s a beautiful little book, only 56k words – quite short for a novel. But he makes every word count, and there are moments of beauty that I would argue can match some of literature’s greatest approaches to the human condition. The narrative is unique in content and tone, blending a sort of child-like frankness with the sobering profundity of life’s dangers and uncertainty. It’s very Gaiman, the mythical woven into the real world, and the subtle humor. There’s nostalgia, but it has an interesting layer of philosophy beneath it. How our memories shape (and trick) us, how our desires can create danger, and what it means to be loyal to the people we care about. Such a short book, but enchanting, surreal, and deeper than it seems.